Dr Boje, middle, with his supervisor Dr Idette Noome, right and his wife Elizabeth, left
Dr John Boje recently received his second PhD in 10 years at the age of 83. He wrote his thesis on his translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from Middle English into Afrikaans. He would have graduated on 6 April, after submitting his thesis, ‘“Save oure tonges difference”: reflections on translating Chaucer’s Canterbury tales into Afrikaans at the end of 2019’. PDBY spoke to Dr Boje about his work, what lay ahead for him, and his advice for young students.
Why do you think an Afrikaans version of the Canterbury Tales is useful?
The Canterbury Tales is in Middle English, a form of the language which makes this major literary work inaccessible to most present-day readers. There are modernisations, but I think translations are more successful. The Tales have been translated into more than fifty languages, so an Afrikaans version is part of a world-wide tribute to a great poet.
How will your translation be used?
The Canterbury Tales provides a window on the Middle Ages, a time when people just like us coped with very different circumstances. The text is therefore of interest to the general reader. A more likely readership, though, will be students of English who battle with the Middle English.
What did you enjoy most about writing your thesis?
The thesis came long after the translation, so it was fascinating to see how the theory of translation, of which I was ignorant when I worked on the translation, meshed with decisions I had arrived at intuitively.
What surprised you the most about your translation?
Probably the capacity of a language to say things one thought would be beyond its reach, for example a hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary, which sounds perfectly authentic in Afrikaans.
Are you looking forward to having a more celebratory physical graduation ceremony?
Yes, my wife bought me a pair of outrageous socks to go with my scarlet gown and I missed out on wearing them.
What’s next for you?
I’ve made some progress with a translation of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It’s so slick and so witty; I hope I can carry it off.
What advice do you have for young students who are daunted by writing a PhD thesis?
It’s vital to choose a topic that is of sufficient interest to keep one going. Then, once you’ve started, do just that. Keep going; don’t despair and don’t give up.
What advice do you have for other multi-lingual South Africans who are struggling to bring together differing cultures and ideologies?
Live fully in both worlds. Don’t use one to measure or to denigrate the other but let different perspectives on the same reality deepen your understanding and enrich your life.